by Colleen Fitzpatrick
WASHINGTON, D.C.__About 75 former colleagues, Chips Quinn Scholars and friends gathered at the Newseum on Aug. 9 to celebrate the life of John C. Quinn and share memories of the former editor-in-chief of USA TODAY and former deputy chairman of the Freedom Forum who, with his late wife Lois, founded the Chips Quinn Scholars Program for Diversity in Journalism.
With Quinn’s trademark walking stick resting at the lectern in the intimate Knight Studio, and flanked by twin monitors live-streaming Twitter comments from supporters across the country viewing the event online, speakers took to the podium to suggest Quinn’s legacy and describe the ways in which he touched their lives. Quinn, 91, died July 11 in his native Rhode Island.
Gene Policinski, chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute, cited the institute’s Chips Quinn Scholars program as that “marvelous survivor…of the efforts in our business to diversify and create newsrooms that represent the country. We’re all proud – John certainly, and those of us who continue to work with the program – that while others declared victory, either through demographics or exhaustion and stopped focusing on diversity, John never stopped…He inspired us to keep that effort going.”
Jeff Herbst, president and chief executive officer of the Newsum and Newseum Institute, echoed that commitment. In his welcome to the group, he called Quinn “a profound advocate for diversity in journalism,” and said he worked with Quinn “to solidify the Chips Quinn program, one of the many accomplishments that will be part of his legacy.”
Chips Quinn Scholars program Director Karen Catone met Quinn in 1973 when he was executive editor of Gannett Co. Inc.’s two newspapers in Rochester, N.Y and the company’s vice president of news. She was a corporate mail girl whose duties included delivering editions of the newspaper to Quinn’s desk “before the ink was dry. The opportunity to work together presented itself some 20 years later, when Quinn was a Freedom Forum board member and the Chips Quinn program was in its infancy,” she said.
Catone said she feels “blessed to have shepherded the program alongside John for the last 23 years.” Nearly 1,400 students, including those of African American, Hispanic, Asian American, Native American and Middle Eastern descent and members of the LGBT community, have been offered journalism internships through the 26-year-old program, named for John and Loie’s son, John C. “Chips” Quinn Jr., who died in a car accident.
One early participant was Rick Jervis, now an Austin, Texas-based correspondent for USA TODAY.
Jervis, a Cuban American from Miami who was enrolled at the University of Florida, recalled walking into CQS orientation in 1993. “I was 22, skinny and scared, and I remember going into the Freedom Forum offices when they used to be in Rosslyn (Va.), walking into those beautiful offices, all marble and glass with an expansive view of the National Mall and the national monuments. My overriding thought was ‘I do not belong here.’ Like, somebody messed up with an application somewhere and I was mistakenly put down to come to this place, because this was far from anything that I had ever seen before. I just felt completely out of place.”
Before Jervis could muster the nerve to introduce himself, Quinn approached, shook his hand and said, “ ‘Rick, it’s great to have you here. Glad you could make it. How’s Gainesville?’ And I was just blown away,” Jervis said. “Here was this…journalism giant who knew not only my name but where I lived, where I went to school and seemed genuinely pleased that I was there. As any Chipster can tell you, it’s a very emotional moment.”
Equally emotional for Jervis was how Quinn told the 24 Scholars that they had earned the right to be in newsrooms and not to let anyone tell them differently.
“That’s something that stuck with me throughout my entire career,” Jervis said. “Not only that summer in Nashville, at The Tennessean. Boston. Miami. Prague. Chicago. Baghdad. New Orleans. And now Austin. Everywhere I went I felt I belonged in that place.”
Something else impressed Jervis about Quinn. “Here was an established white male who dedicated a large part of his life to breaking down barriers created in large part by established white men and was firmly on our side,” Jervis said. Quinn “not only believed in us but he believed that newsrooms were a better place with us in them…He loved us…but he also loved journalism….And journalism is a better place today because of him. He did that through the Chips Quinn program.”
Jervis continued, “It began as a family, but now we’re an army of 1,400 people, all living and believing in the values that he instilled in us: truth, passion, integrity and inclusivity.”
Jan Neuharth, chair and chief executive officer of the Freedom Forum, also cited values as she remarked on the shared experiences of Quinn and her late father, USA TODAY founder Al Neuharth and former Gannett chairman, who once called Quinn “the conscience of the newsroom.”
“John and Al were different in approach and in tone, but they were united in the belief that a free press is vital to our nation’s democracy,” Neuharth said. “And that a fair press is essential to retaining that First Amendment freedom. They shared long-held, rock-solid values of accuracy, fairness and respect for a multiplicity of views. Each was driven by a demand for quality and an unyielding desire for excellence. And each offered guidance to colleagues from the keys of a manual typewriter: Al with his famous peach-colored missives and John through personal notes with his distinctive signature and via Wire Watch.”
Phil Currie, a Newseum Institute trustee and former Gannett senior vice president of news, shared selections of Wire Watch, the weekly internal Gannett communiqué Quinn wrote for 15 years. Topics ranged from journalism’s responsibilities to the First Amendment to coverage of communities of color to life in the newsroom.
Currie elicited laughter when he read one entry, written Jan. 31, 1977, about relations between the White House and press. It began: “Old presidential press secretaries do not fade away; they purge their systems of old frustrations by traveling around giving lectures in journalism.”
Quinn was referring to a former press secretary for President Ford, who told a Michigan college audience that White House reporters should take a turn in public service to better understand how government works. Which inspired Quinn to write: “Only one human endeavor succeeds by having the contestants get into bed with one another, and that endeavor is not journalism.”
Madelyn Jennings, trustee emeritus of the Newseum and Newseum Insitute and a former Gannett senior vice president for personnel, extended her sympathy to “John’s children who remain: beloved R.B. (Richard) and Lo-anne, John’s guardian angel, who lost their mother Loie, brothers Chips and Kiffer (Christopher) and now their father John.”
Quinn “so loved his family,” Jennings said, and went on to list other qualities of his. “He believed journalism is a noble profession. He inspired thousands of journalists. He made diversity happen. He cared. If you think about people who touched your life, my bet is John Quinn is on your list.”
More than one person said that when life presents challenges, they find guidance by asking themselves, what would John Quinn do?
Members of the audience shared reminiscences that, by turns, reflected a man of discipline, principle, compassion and humor, a man who listened to others and put his power to good.
Neuharth concluded the tribute by asking everyone to join her “in raising a glass – of chardonnay, of course – and offering a toast to John and each other.”